Okay…let’s see if I can draw this all together in a coherent statement of some sort.
First off, everyone’s going to have to agree on a few points. If we’re not in agreement…well, I certainly welcome discussion!
Point A: A science fiction RPG is desirable, as the idea of exploring a fantasy version of outer space (with sentient aliens, FTL space craft, laser guns, etc.) sounds like fun.
Point B: While it may be desirable to have a SciFi RPG that fulfills a gamist (Mutant Chronicles, Terminal Space) or narratavist (FutureShock) creative agenda, for purposes of this discussion we are going to assume a simulationist agenda (exploring fantasy space is the desirable outcome…whether this results in a overcoming challenges or addressing premise are secondary considerations).
Point C: Traveller just isn’t enough…for whatever reason.
If we’re in agreement, let’s get down to the discussion.
First Discussion Topic: Level-Based Characters
Levels are typically used to measure characters in terms of relative effectiveness to each other. For example, a 2nd level character is considered MORE effective than a 1st level character. The D&D basis for modeling this effectiveness difference in “experience points;” characters with more experience are more effective. Some natural talent (e.g. ability scores) might also influence effectiveness, but in general more experienced characters are more effective than lesser experienced “rookies.”
Is this appropriate to the genre? I say, yes…and tends to be modeled at least somewhat between all existing games (including Traveller, though CT assumes “improvement” has ended prior to play beginning).
Is it appropriate for effectiveness (and experience) to increase at a rapid rate in play?
This is a tougher question to answer…it depends on what you want to model in play. The Firefly heroes do not improve in ability/effectiveness over the course of their series…but Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan and Anakin sure do over the course of their saga.
Do you want to distinguish characters of different power levels within the game? Do you want characters to get ass-clowned by Count Dooku one week, and then hand the geezer his hands (and head) the next? If you don’t wish to distinguish these changes in power relationship over time, than it’s not necessary to have levels. Levels allow characters to demonstrate change in relative effectiveness and (in some systems) to open up new “content” for exploration.
Any game that features rising conflict as part of its backstory/setting (including Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, Star Wars, whatever) can probably benefit from in-game increases in effectiveness (whether by “leveling” and/or increasing base skill chances). Without setting-specific conflict, such upwards scaling of effectiveness seems unnecessary (and would tend to devalue the “old school” ideal of challenging the player rather than the game mechanics).
Second Discussion Topic: Class-Based Characters
Class and level need not always go hand-in-hand, though they often do (based, of course, on the “D&D paradigm”). There are many reasons for class-based characters, but in this particular type of game I think “class” is best considered an indicator or direction of the style in which a player wishes to play.
Now, this may just be me, of course, but I’m not too worried about “niche protection” or game balance. Personally, I hate the idea that players feel forced to choose particular character types in order to “round out the party.” I do NOT want individuals saying, oh, we need a medic…or a pilot…or an engineer…or a xenobiologist. Or whatever. That blows chunks. All characters are adventurers, their class is the “classification” of adventurer they want to play.
Are classes appropriate to the genre? This is a trickier bit of discussion than the first topic. Certainly it feels more appropriate to “space opera;” defining people by role or archetype (she’s a warrior or he’s a scientist) is appropriate for ease of recognition. It’s pretty obvious what “type” of hero Flash Gordon is (robust, physical) versus Dr. Zarkov (scientific, intellectual) versus Dale Arden (charming, resourceful)…and based on their “type” they have different strengths and special capabilities. It doesn’t mean they’re limited as adventurers, just that they’re gifted in certain ways.
But for “grittier” space adventures, one might want to emphasize player ingenuity which means keeping characters on a more level (no pun intended!) playing field. If all the characters are ex-Brown Coats with similar training, than it is their background and personalities that will distinguish them in-game.
Or their “skills.” But I hate skill systems.
Third Discussion Topic: Skill Systems in SciFi RPGs
Every goddamn game I mentioned earlier has an f***ing “skill system” in it, taking up room that could be used for…oh, I don’t know. Illustrations? Space ship construction? Random planet creation tables? A sample adventure scenario?
Are skills appropriate, necessary, and/or useful to the genre?
You’ll have to forgive me if I say, no, but I understand everyone else thinks the world of skills. What is it that makes people want such granularity in their characters? What’s the difference, skill-wise, between Jean-Luc Picard and William Riker? I mean, maybe one speaks French or something? Doesn’t that just mean he took it as a bonus language?
Okay…maybe this isn’t a discussion I’m capable of facilitating nicely.
Fourth Topic of Discussion: Episodic Serials
What’s the point of play in a SciFi RPG. I wrote before that I think folks that are drawn to these games are drawn to the opportunity to “play pretend in space;” like fantasies about working magic and killing Halflings, space exploration is something in which we are seldom(if ever) allowed to indulge…and any kind of “adventures” a real astronaut might have is probably of the “terrible explosion and death” variety.
And IF we want to explore this particular imaginary starscape and IF the game is a fun one, we probably want to indulge in it more than once with the same character…whether or not any over-riding goal (defeat the Empire, address the premise) is in process. Imagining oneself doing cool/fun things in a space fantasy is its OWN reward, thank you very much.
Subsequent returns indicates the necessity for serial adventures.
Now, there are many ways to run RPGs in a serial format. Well, at least a couple-three:
1) You can have do random-ass adventures that don’t relate too much to each other. A good example of this is the Firefly TV show. A bad example would be the old Buck Rogers TV show.
Why is the former “good” and the latter “bad?” Despite the randomness of the adventures, there is still character development that occurs over episodes (as well as recurring themes) that carry-over and impact later episodes.
2) You can have a linear, episodic plot where each episode builds on what happened in the last one. A good example is Battlestar Galactica (the re-imagined series). A bad example is the original Star Wars trilogy (episodes IV, V, and VI).
Why is the former good and the latter bad? The first Star Wars (in RPG terms) is a classic case of GM railroading. I can’t go to Alderaan, I’m working on the farm. Bam! Farm burned. Let’s get the hell away from this giant space station. Bam! Caught in a tractor beam. Jabba, I don’t want to destroy you. Bam! He won’t negotiate and your mind tricks don’t work…guess this is going to be a fight regardless.
BSG on the other hand builds on each episode, but the characters are constantly exercising their own free will, often with disastrous consequences. The whole series feels like a massive space RPG where the GM allowed players to just “do what my character would do in this situation” and then playing out the results (like the Cylon internment/oppression on New Caprica…for years!). The thing to remember, of course, is that BSG is just as scripted for TV as Star Wars was for the screen…and an RPG should NOT be scripted at all. But with linear plots, railroading is a definite pitfall (in part because allowing free will can be so burdensome on a GM trying to determine consequences).
3) Um…connected episodes, unconnected episodes…what am I missing? Non-chronological episodes? Perhaps…something using flashbacks or telling stories out of synch. This is really outside my realm of experience (review Ron Edwards’s Sorcerer and Sword for more info/ideas and see Firefly and the Star Wars prequels for “light” examples, Star Blazers and BSG: Razor for heavier ones - where things in the flashback influence in the “present time”).
Without serial episodes, space opera turns into…well, into one-off B-movie equivalents, like Battle Beyond the Stars, The Last Starfighter, Ice Pirates or whatnot.
My point is this: it would seem to me that some thought needs to be given to the episodic nature of the genre, whether an un-connected series of random adventures or a connected series built on consequences besides “you leveled up.” It’s not enough to say, “oh here’s a 100 random adventure ideas;” discussion in the book can and should address character (or series!) development over time…and not just how many new “hit points” are gained.
Which is all a precursor to the topic: give me a reason to adventure…but that may be a little too much to include in this post.